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Labour’s position on Brexit is not a compromise, but is taking the wrong side

Summary:
The elections for the European parliament showed us the implications of a basic imbalance in politics today. Brexit is the dominant issue, yet both of the major parties support one side, the Brexit side. The Labour leadership tells itself that it is trying to bring the two sides together. It tells itself, by aiming for a softer Brexit than May wanted, it is trying to compromise. But as someone once said, Brexit is Brexit, and those voting in the European elections agreed. To see why Labour’s position will not bring people together, just look at what happened to the Conservative vote. May was trying to achieve a very hard Brexit, where we were neither a member of the Single Market or Customs Union. She failed mainly because the Brexit extremists in her own party did not support her.

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The elections for the European parliament showed us the implications of a basic imbalance in politics today. Brexit is the dominant issue, yet both of the major parties support one side, the Brexit side. The Labour leadership tells itself that it is trying to bring the two sides together. It tells itself, by aiming for a softer Brexit than May wanted, it is trying to compromise. But as someone once said, Brexit is Brexit, and those voting in the European elections agreed.

To see why Labour’s position will not bring people together, just look at what happened to the Conservative vote. May was trying to achieve a very hard Brexit, where we were neither a member of the Single Market or Customs Union. She failed mainly because the Brexit extremists in her own party did not support her. European election voters punished the Conservatives and sided with the Conservative extremists. They didn’t want compromise.

Suppose Labour, after winning a future general election, enacted their softer Brexit. Would voters come together recognising Labour had attempted to unite both sides? Those voting for the Brexit party of Nigel Farage certainly would not. That slightly more Labour voters from 2017 voted fot the explicit Remain parties combined than Labour in the European elections suggests no appetite for compromise on that side either. Labour would instead suffer the fate of Theresa May and be hated by Remainers and Brexiters alike.

It is for that reason that this discussion is purely academic. Not because Labour would not win an election advocating a softer Brexit: there is a non-zero probability they would. Instead it is because Labour would end up being like Theresa May in failing to achieve their desired Brexit. As I argue here, the Conservatives would say Labour’s Brexit was a betrayal. Labour would only stand a chance of getting it through parliament if they agreed to have a second referendum with Remain on the ballot, and they would lose that referendum badly because Remainers and Brexiters would vote against them.

This dislike of a compromise is not irrational. Brexiters have ending up with No Deal because anything else fails to get complete independence from the EU. They are quite right to say that a softer Brexit would be worse for sovereignty than Remaining, because it amounts to pay, obey but no say. Equally for most Remainers a soft Brexit is qualitatively worse than staying in the EU. Look at the way the EU has supported Ireland in these negotiations, they would say. The moment you leave the club, you lose the backing of one of the most powerful political and economic organisations in the world. They are quite right to point to the many flaws in believing that the 2016 referendum is a mandate for any particular type of Brexit.

Why therefore are Labour antagonising their 2017 voters and their members by having a Brexit position that will be very unpopular and impossible to achieve? The answer normally given is that this is the only way to win a general election. Anything else risks losing ‘heartland seats’ because Labour voters will vote for a Brexit party. While this idea might have had some validity in 2017, it has since become an article of faith rather than an evidence based argument.

The basic problem with this argument is that there are many Remain voters in the constituencies that voted Leave in 2016. Polls throughout 2019 suggest a 3 to 1 ratio: by supporting Brexit Labour are losing three times as many Remain voters as any Leave voters they would lose by supporting Remain. The European elections backed part of that finding up with actual votes, and also suggested Labour are in danger of losing Leave voters anyway with their current stance. If anything like that ratio persists, they will lose their traditional heartland seats because Remain voters will not vote Labour.

The table below is from the Ashcroft exit poll for the European election. It compares the percentage of voters who voted for Labour or explicit Remain parties, and also the Leave/Remain balance, by region. The most Leave orientated regions are to the left. Overall this sample is almost certainly biased to Leave voters, because only a tiny number of young people (18-24) voted, and polls regularly show a small lead for Remain over Leave.

%
EM
NE
York
WM
East
SE
Wales
NW
SW
Lon
Scot
Leave
59
55
54
54
54
52
51
50
50
39
37
Remain
38
38
43
42
42
45
45
45
46
57
59
Lab
11
21
17
17
9
9
12
23
11
17
10
LD,G+
33
28
35
31
40
40
43
34
43
46
62
Lab L
4
7
6
6
3
3
4
8
4
6
3

The first point to make is that the outliers here are London and Scotland. Elsewhere, the Leave vote varies from 59% to 50%, and the Remain vote from 38% to 46%. The idea that leave voters are predominantly in the ‘North’ is nonsense. (If anything, the English divide is East versus West outside London, but it is still a small tendency rather than a real divide.) A key consequence of this observation is that areas like the East Midlands and the North East still contain many Remain voters.

These voters made their choice on the basis of the current policy stance of their parties. Nationally about a third of Labour voters in the European election want some kind of Brexit (Ashcroft does not give a regional breakdown), and two thirds want to Remain. The final row applies that percentage to the Labour vote in each region to get the percentage of Labour leavers. These are the maximum number of voters that Labour could lose from its European election result if it became a Remain party. Compare that to the total number of Remain voters, nearly all of whom could vote Labour if it became a Remain party.

The article of faith that those who justify Labour’s current stance cling to is that Remain voters will return to Labour in any general election, while if Labour became a Remain party any Leave voters would be lost. Examples in the past of protest votes that have all but disappeared are given to justify that faith. But it is never explained why Remain voters will come back to Labour even though it supports Brexit, but Leave voters will not come back in a general election if Labour supports Remain. In addition Brexit is not like anything in the past. It has divided the country like no issue before it. As I showed above, you really need pretty well all Labour Remainers to return to the fold to get a number smaller than the number of likely Leave losses.

The idea that Remain voters, and not the Leave vote, will return en masse to Labour in a general election relies in part on a universal use of tactical voting that is simply unrealistic. A good example will be the forthcoming Peterborough by-electon, which is a classic example of a Leave marginal that we are told Labour has to keep its current Brexit policy to win. If the European elections are anythingto go by, Brexit will win. In 2017, when Labour just won, the LibDem and Green vote was small. Let’s see if Labour voters from 2017 will unite to keep the Brexit party out.

Some say it worked in 2017, so why will it not work in the future? Many things have changed since 2017 (when Labour still lost). The stance of the EU is now clear, and therefore so is the range of deals the UK could possibly get. The Remain movement is much stronger. But the Labour party has also changed. The 2017 election was the era of Starmer’s 6 tests, which included the ‘exact same benefits’. Today those tests are gone, and instead we have prolonged negotiations between the government and Labour over a possible Brexit deal. Too many Remainers who voted for Labour in 2017 feel they can no longer trustCorbyn on Brexit.

The weakness of the argument to keep current policy and ignore the European elections and the polling evidencehas lead some to resort to nostalgia. The argument goes that the working class support for Leave is above the national average, and Labour should be a party of the working class. Labour is becoming less and less a working class party. Supporting Remain would be to “abandon much of the working class – and with it any prospect of a Labour government” accordingto Lisa Nandy.

There are three main holes in this argument. First there are plenty of working class voters that support Remain. Adopting a Brexit policy, even if it is milder than Theresa May’s hard Brexit, is in danger of alienating those voters. Second, Labour stoppedbeing the party of the working class some time ago. Its heartlands today are in large cities and university towns, and supporting Brexit betrays its new heartlands. It betrays the young who overwhelmingly support Remain and overwhelmingly support Labour.

Third, the way you get the working class vote back is by promising or enacting economic measures that help the working class, and not by offering a weaker form (in their view) of Brexit to socially conservative working class voters. If Brexit, then why not immigration? If you think about it, Labour have been trying to appease exactly the same group of voters who voted Brexit for at least a decade, and they have failed miserably for one simple reason. Anyone who wants Brexit enough not to vote Labour is not going to be convinced by a party that is Remain at heart and which is offering them a half baked version of what they want. It was true for immigration under Blair/Brown and Miliband, and it remains true for Brexit.

I said there was still a chance that Labour with its current Brexit policy could win the next election. However the probability that it could win an election with a new policy that fully supports Remain is much higher, and certainly over 50%. The Leave voted could be divided, but the Remain vote if Labour supports Remain much less so. The key to any change in policy is to recognise that, thanks to the Brexiters, a ‘middle way’ (Labour’s current policy) is no longer possible. It will always be opposed by a blocking coalition of No Deal Brexiters and Remainers. The choice is now No Deal, a hard Brexit under the Tories or Remain. Of those three Labour have to support Remain.

What about a small shift in Labour policy, supporting an unconditional People’s Vote where Remain is always a choice on the ballot? The trouble with that policy is it traps Labour with endless questions of under what circumstances Labour would support Remain. Instead of the campaigning party Labour should be on Brexit, it becomes in most voters eyes the party of convoluted explanations. The next Brexit battle is to stop No Deal, and Labour can only do that effectively if it stops pretending it can achieve a softer Brexit.






Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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